JRPGs haven’t evolved as much in the past decade as games from other genres. A few games here or there have thrown in a new gimmick or two in an attempt to set themselves apart, but for the most part, a JRPG from 2004 will look and play a great deal like a JRPG from 2010. This was never more apparent to me than when I sat down to review Golden Sun: Dark Dawn. Chalk it up to spending the better part of the decade wading through a Moé nightmare, but Dark Dawn feels surprisingly fresh, despite its adherence to Game Boy Advance-era gameplay.
The first Golden Sun was released shortly after the Game Boy Advance’s US launch, and was arguably the first must-have game for RPG fans. The hook, aside from being a full featured and visually engaging handheld RPG, was that the story spanned across 2 separate games, which were released within a year of one another. Dark Dawn, in contrast, is bookending the era of the DS – possibly heralding the one of the last major RPG titles before the Nintendo portable is usurped by its 3D successor. It only spans one DS cartridge, but directly continues the story of the first two games, and much like the original title, I was amazed at how great the visuals were on my feeble DS. The world map and overworld avatars are detailed, although still chunky, but the in-battle animations are very impressive by DS standards. Battle animations are smooth, and the dual-screen summon animations are a real treat for anyone who can remember the first time they summoned Odin and Bahamut in Final Fantasy VII.
Dark Dawn takes place 30 years after the end of Golden Sun: Lost Ages. You take control of the children of the original Warriors of Vale as they embark on their first adventure out into the world that had been forever changed by the Golden Sun. A lot of the story details lean heavily on events from the original story, but first-time adventurers shouldn’t be discouraged. A new encyclopedia system makes it easy to keep track of all the esoteric words and phrases without having to stop to look at a manual or the internet. Basically, whenever anyone mentions something important, the text will be colored and underlined, just like a hyperlink on a blog. By hitting the L and R triggers, you can browse through all of the links, and any relevant information or a description will display on the top screen without interrupting the flow of the game. It makes it very easy to keep track of characters, items and villages without having to take notes.
As with the first two games, Dark Dawn’s dungeons are primarily puzzle-based. Each of your 4 party members will learn spells that can be used outside of battle to assist in solving puzzles. By the end of the game, you’ll have everything from the ability to grab something out of reach to magic that lets you turn puddles into icy columns. A lot of the earlier dungeons are themed around teaching a specific set of spells, but later dungeons will have you wracking your brain to figure out which combinations of spells you will need to get from point A to points B, C and D. No stage felt terribly long, which is ideal for a portable game, but I did get stuck on a few puzzles toward the end.
Golden Sun’s turn-based combat has changed very little in Dark Dawn. Players still collect and equip elemental Djinni to their characters in order to power up and to learn new spells and abilities. Mixing elements will give each character a different array of skills, so there is an emphasis on experimentation. In battle, you can call on the Djinni individually to attack, and then combine them to summon monsters for massive damage. The trade off is that whenever your Djinni are in use or cooling down, you lose the abilities and stat boosts that were associated with that Djinn. Djinni collection is one of the game’s subtle strengths. There are over 70 Djinni scattered throughout the world map – some are encountered randomly, while others are found hidden in dungeons – and although they are not all required to finish the game, finding more of them will obviously make the end game a lot easier. The end result is that the game is only as grind-heavy as you make it. If you set out in search for Djinni, you’ll grow stronger, both from the battles you fight on the way there and from equipping the Djinn you acquire. Because I went out of my way a few times to grab a Djinn, I never felt the need to walk back and forth to gain experience, like I tend to do in a lot of contemporary RPGs. I also never felt like I absolutely had to catch ‘em all – I caught the ones I wanted (a little over half) and made my way to the end.
All things considered, Dark Dawn has done little to advance the formula created in Golden Sun, but the system still holds up seven years later. The visuals are an obvious leap forward, and at times I was even impressed with how far the game pushed the DS, but for the most part, Dark Dawn is as direct as a sequel can get. That isn’t a bad thing, though – Golden Sun was a fantastic game, and after such a long time, I suppose it was just time for a new one. If you’re a fan of the original, or just a fan of JRPGs (even a jaded one, like yours truly), you owe it to yourself to give Golden Sun: Dark Dawn a look. It’s one of the best new JRPGs I’ve played in years.